Typically, once a prisoner has served his or her sentence, he or she is released. However, that's no longer the case when it comes to "sexually dangerous" inmates. Such prisoners can now be held indefinitely, giving the government much more power and discretion than in the past.

The Decision

The US Supreme Court recently decided an important case involving sexually dangerous criminals and constitutional power. In a 7-to-2 decision, the Court decided that convicts considered to be sexually dangerous can be held indefinitely. Even after they complete their prison sentence.

United States v. Comstock tackled the issue of whether the federal government has the power to hold prisoners indefinitely or whether it has overstepped its authority granted by the Constitution.

The Act

In 2006, President Bush passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (Act). The Act gave the government the authority to hold sexually dangerous federal prisoners indefinitely.

Briefly after it was signed into law, the Act was challenged by four prisoners who've already served their prison terms. They were sentenced to prison after being found guilty of sexual crimes, such as possession of child pornography or sexually abusing minors.

According to their prison sentence they were to be released several years ago. But prison officials didn't release them because of the risk they would continue to commit sexually violent acts, such as child molestation.

Before reaching the Supreme Court, a court of appeals in Richmond, Virginia sided with the prisoners and ruled that Congress overstepped its authority. However, the Supreme Court ruled the other way and upheld the law.

Indefinitely Holding Sexually Dangerous Convicts

Under the Act, prisoners who are to be released upon completing their sentence can be held indefinitely if they're found to be "sexually dangerous." To be deemed "sexually dangerous" two conditions must be met:

  • First, a court must be provided with clear and convincing proof that due to some mental disease or problem, it would be extremely difficult for the prisoner to refrain from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released;
  • Second, neither the state in which the prisoner is being held nor the state where he or she was brought to trial (if different) are willing to accept custody over the prisoner

The Arguments

Elena Kagan, who was recently nominated to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, argued this case on behalf of the government. She compared the government's ability to hold sexual predators to its power to quarantine inmates who have a highly infectious disease. She argued that due to public safety measures the government is justified in holding such prisoners indefinitely.

However, on the other spectrum is the argument that Congress has gone too far. Congress' powers are limited by the Constitution. It can only pass laws that deal with the federal powers listed in the Constitution.

There's nothing in the Constitution that gives Congress the power to hold sexually dangerous convicts indefinitely. As a result, the argument is Congress can't overstep their rights and enact such a law without violating the Constitution.

Significance of this Case

This case raises important questions regarding the power of the government to act, a legal concept called federalism. Typically, for the federal government to act, it must have been given that power by the Constitution. This is a protective measure that the founding fathers wrote into the Constitution to ensure that government doesn't overstep its authority.

The Constitution doesn't expressly give Congress the power to indefinitely confine prisoners. This case not only gives the government more power to hold inmates, but can also be viewed as a step in expanding governmental powers.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can this law be expanded to other types of crimes?
  • What's to stop the government from applying this law to minor crimes like shoplifting?
  • Can the prisoners appeal the decision of the Supreme Court?

Tagged as: Criminal Law, dangerous inmate, indefinitely held